Sheep and Our Shepherd
This past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, was Good Shepherd Sunday and the Gospel was from John 10. Yesterday (Monday) as well as today (Tuesday) of this week also had Gospel readings from John 10 as a continuation of the Good Shepherd theme.
In John 10, Jesus explains that we are His sheep and He calls us to hear His voice and follow Him. Jesus also teaches that He is our Good Shepherd willing to lay down His own life in order to guard and protect His sheep. Unlike someone merely hired to take care of the sheep who will flee at the first sign of danger, Jesus is a shepherd who loves and cares for His sheep and will sacrifice everything for them.
While reflecting on these readings after Mass today, I started contemplating about the fact Jesus compares us to sheep. Why does He do this? And John 10 is not the only place in the Gospels where we are compared to sheep as we see this in many places including Matthew 25 where sheep and goats are contrasted.
I then decided to read a little about sheep.
What do we know about sheep?
Often I have heard “sheep are dumb”. However, reading about them from those who raise them, it actually seems this is not the case.
Sheep have a strong tendency to stay together with their flock and are social creatures. Some of this is for protection – the larger the group of sheep, the safer they can be from predators. They also note a sheep who becomes separated from the group will become very agitated as it knows it is then very vulnerable prey. Sheep also have an instinct to follow the sheep in front of them. If one sheep decides to go in a direction, even if it is a bad decision, the other sheep will follow, even if they are being led to the slaughterhouse or off of a cliff. This is not because they are “stupid” but simply because it is part of their nature to follow.
Sheep experts report they have very good vision spotting danger from 1500 yards away. They also have sensitive hearing and smell to help protect themselves against predators. They have been evaluated using mazes and other challenges and evidence suggests they have advanced learning capabilities similar to rodents and monkeys. Studies have also been done stating sheep can recognize a familiar human face with some suggestion they can identify their shepherd even in a crowd of people.
So sheep are not “stupid” but instinctually flock together and not only follow and trust their shepherd but know him so well they can recognize his voice and his face.
Sheep and Goats
Sheep are contrasted with goats in the Bible so how do these two animals differ? These animals are two different species and cannot produce fertile offspring if they interbreed. Despite this, the experts say sheep and goats actually have similarities causing them to often be confused with one another. But one definite difference is in their behavior. Sheep are referred to as grazers, eating food low to the ground, whereas goats are browser, eating things higher off the ground (vines, weeds, shrubs, etc, but also even eating things they should not). Goats appear more curious because they are always evaluating their environment due to their eating style whereas sheep appear to us to be more aloof. Goats are more independent whereas sheep have a stronger flocking instinct, which may be a factor as to why it is easier to keep sheep within a fence than goats. Sheep usually try to flee from a fight but, if it is unavoidable, sheep are very tough. Because of fighting styles, if they were to be in a fight with a goat, the sheep have a good chance of winning. A goat rears up on its hind legs and then comes down with its head on the opponent, whereas a sheep will back up several steps then run forward ramming their head into their opponent. (The experts warn you never want to get into the path of either if they are upset because you could be severely injured.)
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and wants us to be His sheep. Jesus wants us to be sheep who know Him, recognize His voice and who follow Him. He does not want us to listen to the voices surrounding us of the world, the flesh and the devil. Jesus does not want us to go astray. As our Shepherd, He has freely laid down His life to redeem us. As our Good Shepherd He will never fail as our protector if we remain in His one flock following His voice. Jesus also makes it clear we are not to be one of the “goats” as we seen in Matthew 25 – the goats being those who do not show love to others in life. But there is more here in this teaching. Recognizing goats naturally are independent, doing whatever they wish and not following a shepherd as the sheep do, the analogy is expanded even further for us.
The idea we are to be sheep and be guided by an authority (a shepherd) is often seen by many in the world today as ill-advised. May today shun authority and see independence, individualism and self-assertion as the ideal. It is true we should be cautious as to who we trust and listen to, but, called to be sheep, Jesus shows us the real issue is not regarding being a follower but WHO we allow to lead us. If we listen to our one true Shepherd, He will guard us. He will love us and lead us home. When we follow Jesus the Good Shepherd, He will lead us to ultimate fulfillment, eternal beatitude and unending happiness. Jesus does not take away our freedom as our Shepherd but rather shows us how to become fully human – which is man who has been made perfect and who is united to God in heaven.
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.